Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a young Indian prince named Siddhartha. The prince was raised with great pride by his father, a good king and fair ruler, who saw much potential in the boy and wanted him to be his successor. Siddhartha lived a very sheltered existence and grew up enjoying the many comforts and riches afforded to those of his caste. When, at the age of twenty-nine, he traveled unsupervised for the first time among his people, he discovered much sickness, sorrow, death, disease, and suffering in the world beyond the palace grounds. This troubled him immensely, so much that he felt compelled to leave his comfortable life and pursue a path of ascetic self-denial in an attempt to understand and overcome this suffering.
He spent many years studying meditation and engaging in extremely intense fasts. He had brought himself nearly to the point of starvation when he, weakened by hunger, nearly drowned while bathing in a stream. It was then that he realized that the path of strict asceticism would not take him where he wanted to go. And, in the words of the Buddhist monk Paramanda, this is what happened next:
"Once as a young boy he had been seated under a tree, watching his father plow a field, when he quite spontaneously entered into a state of great bliss and contentment. It now occurred to him that such a state might form the basis upon which a higher understanding could arise. So, having eaten, he seated himself under a tree, composed his body and his mind, and brought his powers of concentrated awareness to bear upon his examination of the human predicament.
"It is at this point that, according to Buddhist mythology, there arose a figure called Mara, 'the evil one,' who gathered together all his forces to try to prevent Siddartha from becoming the Buddha...In Buddhist art, Mara's forces are depicted as a vast army of strange and furious beings hurling all kinds of missiles at the prince, while he sits composed and undisturbed. As the rocks and arrows come close to the prince's body they are transformed into beautiful blossoms and fall harmlessly around the majestic figure.
"After the failure of his attack, Mara tried a different approach to turn the prince's mind away from the task it was resolved upon. Mara tried to instill a sense of doubt in his mind by questioning his right to be seated on the "Diamond Throne,' the central point from which the whole universe unfolded...
"In reply the prince extended his right arm and touched the earth with the tips of his fingers.
"What happens next is quite wonderful. The goddess of the earth rises up out of the ground and testifies that the prince is indeed rightfully seated on the Diamond Throne, by virtue of his own great effort. She testifies that she has seen Siddhartha, throughout many lifetimes, develop to the point of perfection all the positive qualities of the human being-- qualities of generosity, patience, energy, kindness, and awareness. At this testimony, Mara is completely undone and flees in dismay."
And Siddhartha, having achieved Nirvana, became the Buddha.
Pretty interesting, eh? I am particularly taken by this story because it so resembles a story from my own (Mormon) religious tradition.
Are you ready for another?
Once upon a time there was a young American farm boy named Joseph. At fourteen years old he became deeply concerned with religion and began a sincere search among the Christian faiths he encountered in Upstate New York. He encountered what he described as a confusing array of conflicting religious ideas and strong feelings from their respective proponents.
In his words:
"At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to 'ask of God,' concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.
"So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.
"After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
"But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction--not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being--just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
"It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which help me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air."
And Joseph Smith, having had a vision, became the Prophet.
So why am I sharing this with you?
Frankly, I don't know.
My strongest tendency when it comes to religion is to remain completely neutral, acknowledge the validity of all religious (and non-religious) perspectives, and to never, ever, ever express my own religious feelings, beliefs, or ideas. This is partially because I don't want to offend or alienate anyone. It is largely because I don't have very many concrete opinions in such matters. And, honestly, it is also because I don't want to come across as foolish, childish, or naive when it comes to my worldview.
But this shared motif--the dark power unleashing all its furious strength right before a moment of great enlightenment-- speaks to me on a very personal level because I've experienced the darkness; in fact, I experience it nearly every time I kneel down to pray.
I hate to pray. Hate it. There are a million things I would rather do--such as having a tooth extracted or cleaning a subway restroom-- than kneel down and attempt to pray.
But I know I need to, right? I go to church every Sunday, I insist on family prayers morning and night, I pay 10 percent of my income to the church. I do this because there is a part of me, the core part of me, that feels that it is right. That it is good. That, every once in a while, feels bathed in the comfort of God's love and wants to keep moving towards that love, towards the Being from which it comes. Every once in a while I'll be sitting in a sacrament meeting or a Relief Society lesson and I will suddenly be aware of myself as a creature of light, attached to these other humans, these other beings of light. I have a sense that we are all an essential part of something much larger, something that makes so much more sense than this garbled world we live in. I go to church because church helps remind me of this bigger thing, this greater love.
But I would like to be more connected. I can't base my entire life--particularly the things I teach my children--on something I only half-connect with. I'd like to build my faith, to become more committed, more fully believing. And I realize that the primary way for me to do this is to pray. The foundation of all things religious is that personal connection with Deity, something that must be nurtured through prayer. But I can't pray. There's a block. I utter the first words and am immediately swept away by a sea of uncomfortable emotions and thoughts.
Let me try to explain what it is that is so for me difficult about praying.
We Mormons have a kind of loose prayer template that is outlined in a song I learned as a child:
I kneel to pray, every day
I speak with Heavenly Father
He hears and answers me
When I pray in faith.
I begin by saying, "Our Heavenly Father."
I thank him for blessings he sends.
Then humbly I ask him for things that I need.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen
Simple enough, eh?
And if I just push through without thinking about it too hard, I can do it. I can say a prayer just like that. A pretty good one, even. But I can't ever go too long without thinking about it, and that's where I get all jacked up. My prayer thought processes are usually something along these lines:
I begin by saying, "Our Heavenly Father."
Just saying the words makes me feel vulnerable. Partly, I think, because I associate the name "Heavenly Father" with the primary teachers who taught me about the gospel in Primary classes when I was a kid. It makes me feel like a child....trusting, weak, naive.
It's here that I will also occasionally fall into spasms of feminist indignation and start feeling furious about the whole God-as-Man thing, wishing that I could connect with a being who understood the uniqueness of my life as a woman, my experiences as a mother.
I'll push past that, however, and spend some time trying to visualize this Being with whom I am speaking, gain some sort of grasp on His personhood so I can make a viable connection with Him. And I can conjure up all kinds of wonderful images and personalities, but I can't decide if those are real impressions of this Invisible Deity, or if they're just fond wishes of my imaginative heart. My true fear is that, despite my fondest hopes and spiritual experiences, God is the angry controlling manipulator I generally find in the scriptures. And that fear is rather alienating.
I thank him for blessings he sends.
Here I hit another roadblock.
Don't get me wrong: I am keenly aware of the many things in my life that are good, and for which I am deeply grateful. I am happy to list these things and highlight anything special that happened to me during the day that was particularly special. Right now I can tell you how thankful I am for my healthy children, my kind husband, my cozy house, my job. I can tell you that I am thankful to live in a place that is quite safe,where I enjoy many freedoms, in a home that has hot running water and electricity. I am thankful for the family I came from and the family I married into. I am thankful for the bed in which I sleep, for the computer I am writing this on. I am thankful for my health. I am thankful for my mind. And on and on. I really am very grateful for all that I have and realize that I am, in all things that truly matter, rich.
But I'm not so sure these things have come from God. They may have, but they may not have, and I feel silly saying thanks for something God didn't give me. Some might argue that God has given us everything we have. If that is the case, however, then I wonder what it was that motivated God to grant me so much abundance when there are mothers who can't feed afford to feed their own children, when there are fathers who have to leave their families to fight in wars, when there are little ones who are unspeakably abused and heartlessly neglected. To say that God gives us all good things seems to be a slap across these already-bruised faces.
I generally push past this part too, though, by simply stating to God that I am grateful for these things, without"giving thanks" for them, per se.
Then humbly I ask him for things that I need.
There are so many issues with this one I'm not sure when to start.
First, I hate to ask God for anything because I don't want to feel angry if it doesn't come through. When I asked God to please comfort my sick baby, he seemed to sit by in silence. That stung. A lot. And I want to ask God to heal the world, to save all the children from truly horrible things, to feed the hungry. But I've done that before. Lots of people have. And he hasn't.
And then I think about praying for people I know who need things or who are going through a hard time. I want to pray for each of the children I encounter through my job, children who are going through things that no child should have to endure, things I feel powerless to prevent, but I doubt it would do any good. Like, if God doesn't care enough about these children to do something for them without being prompted, why would he suddenly take interest when I request he do so? So I don't. But then I feel angry.
And I realize there's probably some Grand Scheme Reason for God's not responding to these requests, but it does make me wonder why I'm even asking for stuff. If God's going to do whatever He wants to do anyway, why am I even wasting my breath? And if God's not good enough to give these people the things they need without being asked, why am I worshiping Him?
I do recognize that a lot of these issues are perhaps just a lack of understanding on my part. I do. So I'll still continue onward. Usually what I end up doing is simply asking for help in becoming a better person and in finding opportunities to serve others. And it is at this point that I become completely overwhelmed by a keen awareness of all my many weaknesses and faults--and by a terrible fear that God is going to ask me to do more, to give more, to be more. I am already trying my damndest to do my very best, I think, and I can't stand the thought of being asked to do anything else, to try harder, to give more, to become better. I can't carry any more burdens. I can't. So it is at this point that I completely give up in despair, and move quickly on to the closing:
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
And there are issues there, too. But the whole Jesus thing is a story for another day.
The point is that I have a bit of a darkness gathered around me, a Mara questioning my right to sit on the Diamond Throne, to kneel in the sacred grove, to call on God. I imagine that there are many other people who do, too. But Siddhartha--by extending his fingers to the earth--and Joseph--by calling out in prayer--were able to summon the powers of goodness to fight off the enemy, to disperse the darkness.
I hope to do the same. With patience, with practice, with persistence, with a calm refusal to submit to the darkness, the light will come. I believe the light will come.